Reuters: Inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog would like to visit a military complex in Iran that an exile group said housed a nuclear weapons site, but they lack the legal
authority to go there, U.N. diplomats said. Iran, which insists its nuclear program is solely for electricity generation, earlier this week escaped possible U.N. Security Council economic ... Reuters

By Louis Charbonneau

VIENNA - Inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog would like to visit a military complex in Iran that an exile group said housed a nuclear weapons site, but they lack the legal authority to go there, U.N. diplomats said.

Iran, which insists its nuclear program is solely for electricity generation, earlier this week escaped possible U.N. Security Council economic sanctions after agreeing to freeze all activities which could be used to make bomb-grade material.

But several military sites inspectors would like to inspect are legally off-limits to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which only has clear rights to visit facilities declared to it as nuclear sites. Access to other facilities must be negotiated and can be highly problematic.

A group of Iranian exiles and Washington suspect there is secret atom bomb work at the Parchin military complex southeast of Tehran and Lavizan II in northeastern Tehran.

"The IAEA simply has no authority to go to sites that are not declared nuclear sites," a diplomat close to the IAEA inspection process told Reuters.

He said the agency needed Iran's permission to inspect undeclared sites. The IAEA had not asked to inspect Lavizan II, although it would like to.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky declined to comment. "We are not commenting ... as we do not conduct the inspections process through the media," he said.

Last December, Iran signed the IAEA's Additional Protocol, granting the agency more authority to conduct short-notice, intrusive inspections, but only to declared sites. Although the protocol has not been ratified, Tehran has been acting as if it was in force.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has asked Iran many times for access to Parchin, but a November report by the IAEA said it had received no response from Tehran.

"DEPRESSING"

One U.N. diplomat described it as "depressing" that the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an Iranian exile group with a history of revealing hidden nuclear sites in Iran, said recently that Lavizan II was a secret atomic weapons site and then days later reported it was being stripped clean.

"If a country has a strategy for hiding its nuclear program, then the Additional Protocol is of little use," the U.N. diplomat said, adding that the IAEA would not have been able to prove that Libya had an atomic arms program if Muammar Gaddafi had not confessed and handed over his atom bomb designs.

He said if Iran was hiding a nuclear weapons program, as Washington believes, the IAEA would probably never find it without additional inspection authority.

The Western diplomat close to the IAEA said the suggestion that IAEA inspections were not working reminded him of U.S. accusations that inspections in pre-war Iraq were ineffective.

"The logic is similar to Iraq," he said, adding that U.S. claims that Iraq had revived its covert atom bomb program were wrong. "Inspections worked in Iraq and they're working in Iran."

But in Iraq, U.N. inspectors were armed with a U.N. Security Council mandate that allowed them to go anywhere, any time.

Diplomats and weapons experts said the IAEA inspection process had been dealt a severe blow this week when France, Britain and Germany gave in to Iranian demands that a clause demanding Iran grant the IAEA "unrestricted access" to sites in Iran be removed from a draft resolution.

The resolution passed by the IAEA board only calls on Iran to grant access "in accordance with the Additional Protocol."

"It was a terrible blow to this effort to find these potential nuclear weapons sites," said David Albright, a former U.N. arms inspector and head of a Washington-based think-tank.

ElBaradei has said it could take at least two years to resolve all the issues surrounding Iran's nuclear program, even if the country fully cooperates, because of the efforts it had gone to conceal its program for nearly two decades.